Hope Deferred

Read: Proverbs 13:12

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs 13:12, NRSV).

What are you waiting for?

We’re all waiting for the end of what seems like an endless pandemic. Maybe you’re waiting to see someone you haven’t seen in a very long time. Maybe you’re waiting for a call from your lawyer, your doctor, or your employer. Maybe you’re waiting for justice.

Or maybe it’s “all of the above.”

Waiting is hard work, and all of us know a bit too much about it these days.

Perhaps that is why this proverb jumped off the page at me recently. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, it observes, and one gets the impression that whoever said it knew exactly what they were talking about. This is hard-won wisdom, and we recognize its insight because it rings so true with our own experience.

Hope itself is what helps us through the waiting, of course. But the brilliance of this proverb is that it zeroes in on that excruciating moment when hope itself is postponed. It’s that moment when we realize that the wait is going to be a lot longer than we realized. That moment when some mean-spirited hand reaches out to turn the hour-glass over just when the last bits of sand are spilling through the neck of the glass.

And so our hearts become “sick.” I think this means more than just being sad—although, goodness knows, that’s bad enough. The Hebrew word for “heart” makes room for more than emotion. It involves our intellect and our volition as well. So, for instance, when Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” in the Exodus stories it means that his heart has stopped working well. Not only are his emotions out of control, but he’s not thinking straight, and as a consequence, he makes some really bad decisions.

I don’t know about you, but I think my Hebrew heart is sick. Call it “pandemic fatigue” if you will, but whatever it is, it’s taking a toll on my emotions and my ability to think. And something tells me it may not be a good time to make major decisions.

I suspect that this proverb’s diagnosis is “spot on” for many of us. But what wisdom is there for us as we wait?

I was thinking about this while listening to a retrospective of the life of Britain’s Prince Philip. When asked about all the ups and downs of his extraordinary life, Philip simply replied, “Well, that’s life. I just got on with it.”

There is something to that, and it speaks to a certain grim determination that one doesn’t see as much anymore. It brings to mind the women who made their way to the tomb early on that first Easter morning. Talk about “hope deferred.” Resurrection must have been the last thing on their minds as they gathered the spices and headed off in the dark toward Jesus’ tomb (Luke 24). But off they went anyway, putting one faithful foot in front of the other—just getting on with it.

Hope, as it turns out, is amazingly elastic. By God’s grace, it will stretch until we find the truth of the second half of the proverb: a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. Until that day, all we can do is get on with it, putting one faithful foot in front of the other.

Ponder this saying (often attributed to Augustine): Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. What does this saying suggest about faithful waiting?

Pray: Our hearts are sick with waiting, Lord. Give us what we need to wait faithfully and well.

Broken Beauty

Read: John 20:19-30

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27, NRSV).

What’s the point of pain?

Don’t get your hopes up. I can’t answer that question. But I would like to at least honor it with a few observations.

Sometimes pain is transformed into something beautiful.

When composer, Johannes Brahms, got back from a visit to his mother’s grave, he added a movement to his A German Requiem. It is an intimate interlude in the piece, voiced for a soprano soloist. She sings the words Brahms needed to hear: So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you…as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.

Brahms borrowed those words from Jesus and Isaiah, but he must have heard his mother’s voice in them as he composed this piece. And when we hear them, we are comforted as well. Brokenness has been transformed into beauty, and it is a beauty from which we all benefit.

A word of caution is in order here. If we are not careful this can turn into something trite. Nobody needs a slogan like, “No pain, no gain!” slapped onto their wound like a band-aid. Suffering is suffering, and we don’t make it less so by rushing to look on the bright side. Having said that, however, one can’t help but marvel at the mysterious alchemy that sometimes turns suffering’s “dross” into gold.

There is an ancient Japanese art form that specializes in this very sort of alchemy. It’s called Kintsugi. It involves taking pieces of broken pottery and mending them with materials graced with gold. The end result is something that is arguably more beautiful than it was before.

In his book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, Kintsugi master, Makoto Fujimura, looks at faith through the lens of his art. The results are stunning. For example, he points out that even after resurrection, Jesus still bears the wounds of his crucifixion. Then Fujimura writes, “Through these sacred wounds a new world is born; through the revealing of the wounds still embedded in the new body of Christ, our faith is given.”

We begin to see what he means when he reminds us that, “The Christian gospel, or the Good News, begins with the awareness of our brokenness…Christ came not to “fix” us, not just to restore, but to make us a new creation.”* Not unlike a work of Kintsugi art.

This is good news. Yes, we are broken. But in the hands of the Artist, our brokenness may yet be transformed into beauty. The world’s brokenness may yet be transformed into beauty.

Ponder these words by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering.

There’s a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Pray: Gather our brokenness, crucified and resurrected God. Then transform it into beauty and blessing.

 

*Both quotes are from the book Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura (Yale University Press, 2020), p. 45. For more on both John 20:27 and Makato Fujimura, see “Why Is Jesus Still Wounded After His Resurrection” by Peter Wehner in the New York Times, April 3, 2021.

Considering Silence

Read: Proverbs 27:14

Whoever blesses a neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing (Proverbs 27:14, NRSV).

It’s difficult to say who was more startled.

My husband and I were taking a walk in the wooded dunes near Lake Michigan one afternoon. It was a weekday, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Or so we thought.

Cresting a rise on the trail, we suddenly found ourselves face to face with an owl. It was sitting on a branch not six feet from us. We stopped in our tracks, stunned into silence. There followed a thirty second stare-down during which we sized one another up. Then the owl, unimpressed with us, flew off to find more interesting company.

Neither of us had ever been that close to an owl. But the encounter sparked a shared memory of a poem we had learned as children:

A wise old owl sat in an oak.

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard.

Why can’t we all be like that bird?

In my case, I’m sure the occasion for this poem’s quotation was some adult’s attempt to get me to stop talking. Looking back on it, however, I think there might be an enduring message there for all of us.

Listening seems to be something of a lost art. We don’t “ponder” much anymore. On top of this, social media makes it possible—even mandatory in some circles—to launch our opinions on the world whether we have had time to consider them or not.

Then there was the post that said, “I’m thinking of starting a blog, but I don’t know what to say.” That one leaves me—well—speechless.

We live in a culture that is awash with words. Some of these words need to be spoken and are, in fact, overdue. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” True enough. Point taken.

But I wonder if we might also do well to consider silence as a faithful option—or at least as a prerequisite for our speech.

The proverb about blessing a neighbor with a loud voice early in the morning suggests that timing is everything. And that, I think, is a nudge in the right direction. Perhaps it is not silence or speech per se that matters so much as wise words well timed. As another proverb puts it: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15.23).

I think I’ll stop writing now since I’ve run out of things to say.

Ponder: How long do you wait before you hit “send”? What risks are there to speech? To silence?

Pray: Help us to be better listeners. Help us to weigh our words and to speak with wisdom.

Short but Sweet

Read: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NRSV).

We call it, “the day the light changes.” You’ve probably noticed it, too. It’s that day in spring when the buds on the trees turn into tender green-gold leaves. And just like that, the light changes. Winter’s harsh glare gives way to the softer shades of spring.

Of course, it’s easy to miss it if you’re not paying attention. But isn’t that part of its appeal? We savor its sweetness precisely because we know it will not last for long.

Robert Frost has his finger on the pulse of this phenomenon in his famous poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief.

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

No one needs lessons in life’s ephemerality after a year of close encounters with COVID-19. Yet, the reminder that life is both fragile and short presents us with some important choices. How do we live knowing that “nothing gold can stay”?

This is precisely what the “Teacher” is wrestling with in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. At first, it seems like he is making some pretty cynical choices. In fact, he sounds a bit like someone who has lived through a pandemic. Tell me you can’t relate a little to these words:

All things are wearisome, more than one can express;

    the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing (1:8).

It’s like when you can’t remember what day it is, and all the days of the week become “Blursday.”

But I’m not sure we are being completely fair to the Teacher if we write him off as a cynic. He is a realist, certainly. He’s been around the block enough to know that life is not only short, but often unfair. He knows that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful” (9:11). Yet, in spite of this, he urges his fellow humans “to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live” and to “eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (3:12-13).

The key to understanding what makes this Teacher “tick” is often lost in translation. Look again at that “vanity of vanities” verse that opens the book. The Hebrew word behind what is rendered as “vanity” is: hevel. It does not mean “vanity” in the sense of being futile, meaningless, or proud. It means fleeting or ephemeral.

It may help to know that Cain’s brother, Abel, is named Hevel in Hebrew. A quick review of that story in Genesis 4 reveals that Abel’s life is short—thanks to his murderous brother. But no one could come away from that story thinking that Abel’s life is meaningless.

Nothing gold can stay. But it is still gold. Pure gold.

Ponder Frederick Buechner’s words from his novel, Godric:What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

Pray: Help me to embrace this fragile life with gratitude instead of cynicism.

Finding Jesus

Read: Exodus 32

So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:3-4, NRSV).

“Jesus Christ, we invoke your name, amen!”

These were the words of one of the Capitol insurrectionists standing at the front of the Senate chamber on January 6, 2021.* Seizing the moment, the shirtless man beside him then called the violent crowd to prayer. After first removing his horned hat, he spent the next minute attempting to conscript God to his cause. He concluded with the words, “In Christ’s holy name we pray.”

In Jesus’ name? Really?

To paraphrase a line from Anne Lamott, “I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears [people] talk like this.”

Be that as it may, the prayer is but one example of what author, Jack Jenkins, describes as “a violent faith brewed from nationalism, conspiracy, and Jesus.” In a January 12 article for the Religion News Service, Jenkins wrote this of the January 6 event: “While not all participants were Christian, their rhetoric often reflected an aggressive, charismatic, and hypermasculine form of Christian nationalism—a fusion of God and country that has lashed together disparate pieces of Donald Trump’s religious base.” He also points out what was obvious to most people watching the riot on television that day, namely, that “Christian nationalism and hypermasculinity often overlap with forms of white supremacy.”

By what insidious sleight of hand did this version of the faith find its way into the hearts of so many?

Moses must have asked himself something along those lines when he came down off Mount Sinai to discover the people of God bowing down to a golden calf. How could this people, so recently rescued from slavery, credit a calf with bringing them up out of the land of Egypt?

What is often overlooked in this story is the fact that the people had somehow conflated this calf with the God who had so recently rescued them at Red Sea. Moses’ brother, Aaron, aids and abets them in this delusion. Building an altar in front of the newly minted calf, he declares, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” The LORD. That’s shorthand for the God’s proper name. Talk about an insidious sleight of hand! The Capitol insurrectionists have nothing on Aaron.

While I don’t want to make excuses for calf-worshipers of any age, it is instructive to ask how such things happen. A careful reading of the story in Exodus suggests that the people felt like they’d been abandoned. They felt powerless. They wanted a god that they could see, admire, and best of all—control. The only problem was that this god had little to do with the real one.

It’s surprisingly easy to make this kind of mistake. It is much harder to admit the mistake and undo the damage. History is riddled with examples.

In his book, Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley quotes a “catechism” that white Christian slave-holders used to teach slaves. It read:

Who gave you a master and a mistress?

    God gave them to me.

Who says that you must obey them?

    God says that I must.

What book tells you these things?

    The Bible.

McCaulley uses this catechism to question “whether the Christianity that the enslaved were taught was indeed the Christianity of the Bible.” It’s clear that it wasn’t. In light of this, he points out that “early Black conversion entailed finding the real Jesus among the false alternatives contending for power in the culture (p. 78).

How do we find the real Jesus among the false alternatives? That’s not an easy question to answer. But surely, the first step is to realize how easy it is to get mixed up. Then we need to ask each other—and ourselves—some hard questions. Repent if the shoe fits. Try to make amends. And all the while, pray hard that the real Jesus finds us.

Ponder: By what insidious sleight of hand did a false version of the faith find its way into the hearts of so many? How do we find the real Jesus among the false alternatives?

Pray: Forgive us. Then find us, Lord Jesus, even as we try to find you.

 

*The prayer begins just before the 8-minute mark of this video shot by veteran war correspondent, Luke Mogelson. He is a contributing writer at the New Yorker.

Chased by a Train

Read: Exodus 3

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. The Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up” (Exodus 3:1-3, NRSV).

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, I remember hearing people talk about their hope that lockdown could provide the sabbath rest they knew they needed.

Far be it from me to criticize that well-intentioned goal. I, after all, know myself to be the chief of sinners. I have spent much of my life behaving like I am being chased by a train. So, I can identify with the need to catch one’s breath.

But I wondered whether the pandemic had provided the respite for which my friends had hoped. So, I circled back and asked them.

The consensus seems to be that it has been a mixed bag. Sure, we’ve learned some things. We have learned to savor evenings in front of the fire. We bake more bread (yes, sourdough). We take more walks. All good—but also all evidence of a level of privilege that many do not enjoy. Parents with school-age children are having a very different pandemic experience. Those who have lost jobs and loved ones are in another universe of pain, depression, and anxiety. All of us long for the day we can step back into the sunshine of a human embrace—not to mention a good, old-fashioned party.

When we look back on the experience—somewhere ages and ages hence—I suspect that we will see that the pandemic took far more than it gave. Even for the optimists, it was not the change that was “as good as a rest.”

Cal Newport has a new book out that explains part of the problem for many of us. It’s called, A World without E-Mail, and it highlights the down side of this relentless connection to a “hyperactive hive mind.”* While acknowledging the attributes of having “fast, asynchronous communication,” Newport also points out that “this way of working makes us miserable. It just clashes with our fundamental human wiring to have this nonstop piling up of communication from our tribe members that we can’t keep up with.”

I don’t know about you, but this explains a lot about that “chased by a train” feeling that many of us have, even when we’re working from home.

We can’t blame email for all our ills, of course. It is only part of a complicated picture. At the end of the day, we have to take responsibility for ourselves, and this may involve making some hard and deliberate decisions about how we live our lives.

Which brings us to Moses—finally.

Consider this poem by Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. It’s called, “The Bright Field,” and it highlights the moment when Moses turns aside to check out the burning bush:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the

pearl of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you

What are we missing while we’re being chased by that train? What wonders, what callings are lost to us? What would it take to help us turn aside to find them?

Ponder this quote from Anne Lamott: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

Pray: Do whatever it takes to get our attention, God. Then grant us the courage to turn aside.

 

* Quotes are from Ezra Klein’s excellent interview with Cal Newport on Klein’s March 5, 2021 podcast for the New York Times.

Lost and Found

 

Read: Luke 15:1-7

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:3-4).

Why is it so hard for us to admit that we are lost?

Some of it may be good, old-fashioned arrogance. Or maybe we’re stubborn. Or maybe we don’t even realize we ARE lost.

Whatever the reason, most of us resist that moment of truth for as long as we can. Only when we are faced with incontrovertible evidence do we finally admit that we are well and truly lost.

I remember getting a call from a distraught teenager (who will remain nameless). She had driven north on Highway 131 searching for the amusement park she KNEW was there. She was so sure that it was there that she had soldiered on for over two hours in a state of perpetual hope and disappointment. Finally, she pulled over to call home for directions. As a parent, it gave me no joy to inform her that said amusement park was on Highway 31, not 131. Well, OK…maybe it did give me a little joy, but since it was exactly the kind of thing I would have done at her age, I didn’t have much room to laugh.

Again I ask: Why is it so hard for us to admit that we are lost?

Novelist Louise Penny puts her finger on the psychological sore spot when she observes:

Being lost is so much worse than being on the wrong road. That’s why people stay on it for so long. We’re too far gone, or so we think. We’re tired and we’re confused and we’re scared. And we think there’s no way back (A Great Reckoning, St. Martin’s Press, 2016, p. 366).

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep approaches the predicament from the perspective of the shepherd. The parable says nothing about the lost sheep’s state of mind. Instead, it focuses on the love and determination of the shepherd, who goes to extravagant lengths to rescue the one member of the flock that has gone astray.

This angle is profoundly reassuring, of course. But the perspective of the sheep could not have been lost on “all the tax collectors and sinners” who “were coming near to listen to him” (v. 1). And it is not lost on us, either. At some point, we are all “poor little lambs who have lost our way.”

Jesus comes looking for us even if we don’t realize we’re lost. Jesus comes looking for us even if we’re too stubborn or too arrogant or too scared to admit that we’re lost. His state of mind is more important than our state of mind. Having said that, we should also acknowledge that the Good Shepherd may use our state of mind to help us find our way home.

Later in the aforementioned novel, Louise Penny writes:

There’s always a road back. If we have the courage to look for it, and take it. I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help. Those are the signposts. The cardinal directions (p. 374).

All of us need to watch for those signposts—to ask for those directions. But while we’re doing so, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus is already running to meet us. Heck, he’s already planning the welcome home party.

Ponder the words to “Lead Kindly Light” by John Cardinal Newman. Newman had been traveling in Italy when he fell ill. Longing for his home in England, he boarded a ship in Palermo. It was becalmed for a week on its way to Marseille. It was during this week that he wrote the words to the now familiar hymn.

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on;

Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene: one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose, and see my path; but now
Lead thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost a while.

Pray: Look for us even if we don’t realize we are lost.

 

Lost and Found Series

Lost and Found Series Introduction

If you’ve ever used MapQuest, you’ll know that there are often several different routes that you can use to reach your destination. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. We make our choice based on our priorities. Sometimes scenery may be more important to us that speed, and we plan our route accordingly.

Yet, even with the marvels of modern technology, there are still a whole lot of ways to get lost.

What is true in terms of physical navigation is even more true in terms of spiritual navigation. There are a lot of ways to get lost—individually and collectively. In this series, we’ll explore some of these. And while we won’t have a computer generated voice to help us get back on track, we will have Scripture.

The first reflection in the series is on the parable of the lost sheep. It shares its title with the whole series, and it reminds us that the Good Shepherd is looking for us even if we don’t realize we’re lost. I don’t know about you, but I find that infinitely more reassuring than a computer generated voice.

May the Good Shepherd seek and find you in this series.

Carol M. Bechtel

Salt & Light Series – Rooted

Read: Deuteronomy 6:20-25

“Then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand’” (Deuteronomy 6:21).

I was rifling through my mother’s silverware drawer in search of a paring knife. I settled on a likely looking candidate and began to peel the potatoes.

“Oh, don’t use that one,” Mom chided. “That knife’s so dull you could ride it all the way to London.”

By that time I had discovered the truth for myself. But as I proceeded to peel with the sharper knife she provided, I continued to reflect on her peculiar proverb. When I asked Mom about it, she told me that it was what the women in our family had always said about dull knives.

“But Mom,” I marveled. “That saying must go all the way back to some ancestor in England! Why else would you talk about riding anything to London?”

In that moment, I felt a funny sort of solidarity with that unnamed Englishwoman who, in a fit of wry humor—which I like to think still runs in the family—creatively condemned her dull knife.

For me, it was a linguistic link that surprised me into a deeper sense of my connection to the past. Perhaps something similar is going on in Deuteronomy 6:21. The previous verse anticipates that future generations may need to be reminded about the mighty act of God that forged them into a community of faith and gave them the Law as a guide to grateful obedience. So, it says–“when your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….”

I have added the italics in the last quote to underscore the use of the first person plural. Did you notice how the children’s question is framed in the second person, “you”? The suggested response, however, shifts the pronouns resolutely to “we” and “us.” The point is unmistakable: the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea was not something that happened to somebody else. It happened to all of us—to every generation that belongs to the community of faith.

In times of isolation, it’s easy to lose track of ourselves. Without friends, colleagues, and family around us, we miss some of the daily reminders of who we are and what we stand for. In the absence of those touch-stones of identity, there are other groups that may try to provide alternatives based on shared grievances, prejudice, or hate.

Perhaps this is part of what Paul is warning against when he writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit” (Col. 2:8). Instead, he urges those who “have received Christ Jesus the Lord,” to “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col 2:6-7).

All of this is to say: As Christians, we are not alone. We are all caught up in a story that is much bigger than ourselves. Our roots run deep.

Remember that the next time you feel like you are losing track of yourself.

Ponder: In talking about how crucial it is to read the Bible as a “living whole,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We become a part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land…. We are torn out of our existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth.” (Life Together, p. 53). How is losing yourself in this way also finding yourself?

Pray: Help me to live my life as one who is rooted in Christ, established in faith, and abounding in thanksgiving.

Salt & Light Series – Lip Service

Read: James 3

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire….” (James 3:5-6a, NRSV).

Do you remember “truthiness”? That was the word comedian Stephen Colbert coined to describe the tendency to trust our “gut” even when doing so defies all evidence, logic, or facts. We believe things because they seem like they ought to be true.

I won’t go into all the ways that can get us into trouble. Suffice it to say: not all information is created equal. Some information is true and some isn’t—regardless of how we feel about it.

The third chapter of the book of James is a mini-meditation on the power of the tongue to tell truth or lies. Sometimes the same tongue does both, which just goes to show how inconsistent we are. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing,” James observes. Working with the analogy of a spring that doesn’t pour forth both fresh and brackish water, James exclaims, “Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” If our hearts belong to God, our speech should be consistently godly, he reasons. Anything less is mere lip service.

That we will need divine help to carry off this level of consistency is obvious. Animals, after all, can be tamed. But the tongue? No—James isn’t optimistic about that. “No one can tame the tongue,” he says. It is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

The Bible talks a lot about the power and importance of words. While I usually focus on just one passage in these reflections, it occurs to me that it could be useful to gather together some of Scripture’s “greatest hits” on the subject.

It is surely significant that the prohibition against bearing “false witness against your neighbor” is included in both versions of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20). Truthfulness (not just “truthiness”) is also the admission ticket for God’s presence in Psalm 15. The psalmist says that only those who “speak the truth from their heart” and “do not slander with their tongue” will be allowed to abide in God’s tent (Ps. 15:1-3).

Really, God? Isn’t that a bit harsh?

Well yes, it is harsh. But clearly, God is not a big believer in the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” There are lots of passages that illustrate just how hurtful words can be, and that may explain why truth is so high on God’s priority list.

Deuteronomy 19:15-21 is clear-eyed about a lie’s power to subvert justice. It states that “a single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime.” Instead, two or three witnesses are be required. If you are a careful student of Scripture, you may remember that this rule was not enough to protect poor Naboth from the “two scoundrels” that Queen Jezebel scrounged up to bear false testimony against him (see I Kings 21), but the provision did provide at least some insurance. Extra insurance came by way of the penalty for bearing false witness. Deuteronomy says that if a judge investigates and finds that a witness has lied, the community is to “show no pity” (Deut. 19:21).

In Psalm 35 the psalmist laments that “malicious witnesses” rise up against him, spreading “deceitful words.” “They open wide their mouths against me,” he says. “They say, ‘Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it’” (vv. 11-21). Having been on the receiving end of such slander, the psalmist vows that his own tongue shall be put to better use. My tongue, he promises God, “shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all day long” (v. 28).

This brings us to some of the things the Bible has to say about the tongue’s potential for praising God. “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD,” says the psalmist, “and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever” (Ps. 145:21). This, it would seem, is a new and improved twist on the phrase, “lip service”!

Words also have the power to do great good, and the book of Proverbs points this out. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” says the sage in Proverbs 25:11. Or this, from Proverbs 15:23: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!” Proverbs 15:1 throws in a note of caution: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Proverbs 17:28 is in a category all its own, and I have vowed to recite it to myself before every faculty meeting. It says, “Even fools who are silent are considered wise; when they close their lips they are deemed intelligent.”

These passages are just the tip of the iceberg. If we were to dip further beneath the surface, we would discover many others. Some of the most telling are the ones that talk about divine words. For instance, God speaks creation into being in Genesis 1. The gospel of John says that “the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). And let’s not forget the flip side when Jesus refers to the devil as “the father of lies” (John 8:44).

Even if this compendium is incomplete, I hope it encourages us to more care in our “lip service.” Needs must, as they say, and our current context makes it compulsory.

Ponder: The prophet Isaiah says, “We have made lies our refuge and in falsehood we have taken shelter” (Is. 28:15). What does this passage say about our collective capacity to be taken in by lies?

Pray: “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me” (Ps. 43:3a).

Salt & Light Series: The Good Republican/Democrat

Read: Luke 10:25-37

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37, NRSV).

One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems begins: Tell all the truth but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies.

Jesus would have loved Emily Dickinson. I can’t prove this, of course, but Jesus did have a penchant for parables, and parables are all about “telling it slant.”

Take the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance. Jesus pulled that parable out of his pocket as a teaching tool. His “student” that day was the smartest kid in the class—a lawyer, who had asked, “Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus turned the question around and asked, “What is written in the law?” the student gave an A+ answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Great, says the Teacher. Give that man a gold star. Go to the head of the class.

It’s easy to imagine the student feeling pretty good about himself at this point. But then the Teacher adds, “Do this, and you will live.”

One has to wonder whether our prize student had any doubts about his ability to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. (Most of us would!) But he definitely starts looking for a loophole with regard to loving his neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. It’s as if he can imagine living up to this part, but only if the right kind of people are on the list.

This is the point at which Jesus decides to “tell it slant.” It’s a technique that recognizes how difficult it is for us to see what’s right in front of us. And it’s perfect for getting around our defenses. Our guard comes down, after all, as soon as we start losing ourselves in the story. Success in circuit lies.

You probably know the story. The “good Samaritan” goes out of his way to help an injured man on the side of the road. All the usual suspects, on the other hand, scurry by on the other side. It’s a story that defies all the stereotypes. The hated Samaritan is clearly the good neighbor, while the respectable priest and Levite can’t be bothered. By the time Jesus gets to the end of the story, our star student realizes there is only one right answer to Jesus’ question about which of the three is “a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers.” In that moment, he realizes that he has just lost his loophole. His list of “neighbors” just got a lot longer.

If we have the courage to translate this parable for today, our list of neighbors will get a lot longer, too.

That’s exactly what Bishop Michael Curry suggested in a recent interview with Krista Tippett in her radio program, On Being. What if we were to reimagine this parable as the “Good Republican” with the Democrat lying hurt on the side of the road? Or the “Good Democrat” with the Republican lying hurt? For that matter, what would the parable feel like if we imagined it with the Black Lives Matter person and a police officer in both roles? Then he says:

That’s what love of neighbor looks like. And I wonder if Jesus was saying: life is meant to be lived…as a Good Samaritan. And if that begins to happen, imagine what a different society we’d have. Imagine what our political debates would be like. Imagine: we’d have some civil discourse. We’d disagree, but we’d pick each other up…and pour oil on our wounds, and care for each other, and figure out, “How we gonna do this together?” We gotta to live together!

Did you notice what just happened? The Bishop told all the truth, but he told it slant. He snuck up on us with his updated version of the parable. All at once, we star students aren’t so smug anymore. All at once, we’ve lost our loophole. All at once, our list of neighbors just got a lot longer.

Mercy isn’t much in evidence these days. But maybe now that we’ve been caught off guard by the parable of the Good Republican/Democrat, we’ll find some we can spare.

Ponder: Reimagine the parable of the Good Samaritan for your own situation. How does it “sneak up on you” now? Who is your neighbor?

Pray: Merciful God, help us to be better neighbors—even to those with whom we disagree. Tell us the truth in whatever ways will get through to us.