Some thoughts on truth and love

17 11 2012

I’ve been thinking this week about a phrase that Paul wrote in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus: “we will speak the truth in love”.

My thoughts were kick-started by listening to Shauna Niequist speaking about the ancient proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” You can listen to her talk here.  She tells of a visit she made to a metal worker who showed her that you need two things to shape metal – heat and force. We can hammer metal with intense force, but if there’s no heat it’s just big noise and no movement. There must be heat before there can be shape.

Shauna then talks about the two things that are needed if we are to engage in the arena of personal growth – trust and truth. If there’s no trust, the words that are said, however truthful, will be just that – words, and probably hurtful ones at that; if there’s too much trust, the truthful words never get said.  I’ve been in both positions. Someone once said some very hurtful things to me and concluded with, “I’m just being honest.”  Yeah, right!  And wary of this trap, I’ve often failed to say things that I should have said because I didn’t want to upset the other person, even although leaving them where they were did them no favours. It’s critical to have the two in tandem if personal transformation is to take place.

So back to Ephesians.

Someone once said that the sense of  “we will speak the truth in love” in the original Greek (and who am I to argue!) is “truthing it in love”. I like that.  There’s the sense of continuation, not just a vomit of words, but a walking alongside another person, loving them, easing them into realisation of the truth and, as they say in the classier classics, “being there for them”. Isn’t that what you would want from a friend?

And to what end are we to engage in this often difficult path with others?  It’s so that we, and they, grow up – “God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other.”


Don’t burn the toast

27 01 2012

Transparency is a much talked of value – we ask for transparency in financial dealings and accounts, transparency in relationships, transparency in – toasters??  (Sorry, I found the image and couldn’t resist it!)

We like to know where we are with people, we don’t like being caught out by the small print, we hanker after truth.

Of course the downside is that others want us to be transparent too and that’s not so comfortable; we all like a degree of opacity, don’t we?

I started reading Mark’s gospel last week and it is an “in your face”, transparent introduction to Jesus.  Mark has no preface of birth narratives, no angels or wise men or genealogies, just right in there – “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

There’s an air of excitement and anticipation that draws the reader into the story.

If Mark is direct about who Jesus is, he is equally direct about what is expected of those who listen to him – “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”

It seems that I’m in for a challenging, don’t-burn-the-toast, nowhere-to-hide read.

True truth

16 12 2011

Paul took his mission seriously and travelled around the Eastern Mediterranean for years of his life.  Most of the maps of his journeys are covered in arrows showing directions, but I find them confusing, so here’s one that is simple and tells you where you can read about the different trips he made.   It’s about 1450 miles from Rome to Jerusalem direct, but Paul never travels directly and remember that this is in the days before Easyjet! 

So what is the mission that takes Paul all around this area?

Essentially he is an interpreter.   He is a good public speaker who is adept at grasping meaning and conveying it to his listeners.  In a sense he’s an “in between-er” – he stands between God and people, interpreting God’s message so that his listeners can understand and experience God for themselves.

Translators and interpreters have power.  When I see them with headphones at international conferences, I wonder if they are tempted to massage what they hear, to embelish or misrepresent.  It could be fun to lead important people up the proverbial garden path!

But back to Paul.

When he visits Berea, the people who listen to him have an interesting reaction : ” When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men.” (Acts 17:10-12)

Here are open-minded people who are willing to consider something new. At the same time they are prepared to do the hard work of investigation to make sure that Paul and Silas are not misleading them.  Truth matters to them.  It’s not that they want to decide what’s true for them in a relativistic sense.  They want to make sure that what Paul says hangs together, that it fits with Old Testament teaching, that he’s not leading them up the garden path. It’s a good search to go on – to find true truth.


3 12 2011

I was right.  I was wrong about Paul.

Reading a bit more of his story, I see that he has a clear strategy.  He travels around a lot, and in each place he comes to he heads straight for the local synagogue.  (I guess that’s not surprising given that he’s a Jew.)

His strategy is to connect with the local Jewish communities, but to lead them further in their understanding about the God they believe in. He gets a fair hearing to start with, but then things turn nasty.  Some believe his message – that Jesus is the promised Messiah (Acts 17:3) – and others regard this as blasphemy.  Death threats, violent attacks and imprisonment are par for the course, but this doesn’t faze Paul, and doesn’t deflect him from his strategy.

What keeps him going?

I think it goes back to his definitive personal experience of God.  Paul has gone from persecutor to evangelist and in the transition has a clear belief the he is designated as the “apostle to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 9:15) So why does he persist with his strategy of presenting the message to Jews?  It’s a guess, but I think he is passionate about giving them every opportunity, trying to convince them of the truth of Jesus’ claims, pointing them to a new experience of God just like  he has had.

But he won’t push people where they don’t want to go.  When the Jews won’t listen, he turns to the Gentiles. (See for example Acts 13:46)

The Old Testament references and Jewish traditions don’t mean anything to them, so Paul has a different tack.  He starts with something that they can identify with – in Athens, it’s comment on their statues, quotations from their poets, adopting their style of communication – but again he doesn’t leave people where they are.  His strategy is always to encourage life change.

Tom Wright, in his book on Acts, expresses it this way –

“It is not the case that God simply ‘accepts us as we are’.  He invites us as we are; but responding to that invitation always involves the complete transformation which is acted out in repentance, forgiveness, baptism and receiving the spirit.”

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And is it true?

26 04 2011

Throughout his gospel, Luke has been concerned to present a true account of the events of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.  From the Christmas story to the Easter Passion and Resurrection we, his readers, must decide which button to press…and live with the implications.    ~

The early followers found their fears and doubts transformed to joy and worship as they encountered the risen Jesus in their lives. But it wasn’t just a cosy “I’ve been with Jesus” experience; they had a task to fulfil.  Here’s what Jesus said to them –                                                                                                       ~

“Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’ You are witnesses of all these things. And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised.” (Luke 24:46-49)

The message is out…and I need to decide whether to pass on the baton or keep it to myself.


And is it true,

this most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,

a baby in an ox’s stall?

the maker of the stars and sea

become a child on earth for me? 

And is it true?  For if it is… 

[No thing] can with this single truth compare –

that God was man in Palestine

and lives today in bread and wine. 

John Betjeman (Read the full poem here.)

The story sounded like nonsense

25 04 2011

‘ Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction;

(Lord Byron, in the satirical poem Don Juan, 1823)

Luke tells us a strange story in chapter 24 of his gospel.  The women who had been following Jesus went to his tomb to embalm the body only to discover that the body had gone.  They hurried back to tell the men, whose reaction could have been predicted – “But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it.”

Peter rushed off to see for himself but, “then he went home again, wondering what had happened.”

So what was going on?

The women didn’t just find an empty tomb, they also had an angelic encounter, two “men” who told them the truth – “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead!”  They went on to remind the women of things that Jesus had told them in the past – “Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.” 

It’s easy for us to think, “How could they possibly have forgotten that?” but do you never have selective hearing?  Luke doesn’t say so, but my guess is that Jesus said some things that were so strange to the ears of his followers that they hung them as questions in a wardrobe and firmly closed the door. 

Now the door is wide open and Jesus’ followers have to confront their questions.

“From the beginning, the gospel is good news not least because it dares to tell us things we didn’t expect, weren’t inclined to believe, and couldn’t understand.  Did we expect the gospel would be something obvious, something we could have dreamed up for ourselves?”

Tom Wright

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Does prayer change things?

9 04 2011

I’ve been troubled over the last few days – ever since I read the sentence in Jonah 3:10 “God changed his mind.” 

It reminded me of a Charles Schulz Peanuts cartoon.  Linus is kneeling by his bed with his hands together, not in traditional “prayer pose” but together pointing downwards.  Lucy is standing watching him as he says, “I think I’ve made a new theological discovery….If you pray with your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you ask for.”

There are mysteries here.

So, “Does prayer change things?”  (By this I don’t just mean does it change things for me – ie do I “feel better”, am I more “spiritually connected” as a result?)

I’m going to have a go at thinking this through.  (My guide through this tricky topic is Don Carson – A call to spiritual reformation chapter 9.)

There are two big truths taught in the Bible and I need to grasp how to hold them together.  It’s another example of tension.

  1. God is King, he wears the crown and calls the shots.
  2. We are responsible creatures – we choose, believe, obey and there is moral significance in our choices.

If only the first proposition is true, we would reduce God to Fate, so we need to hold the two ideas together – God is transcendent: he exists beyond all time and space and is King of his universe.  Yet he is personal in his dealings with you and me: he presents himself as a loving Father.  It may be difficult (it is!) to understand how both can be true at the same time, but just because it is difficult does not make them untrue.

So what about prayer?

The biblical truth that God is King is never a disincentive to pray for people in the Bible or for me either.  Jesus does say that we shouldn’t babble on thinking that God will hear us for our many words, because he already knows what we need before we ask him; but he also endorses persistence,  telling his disciples stories “to show that they should always pray and never give up”. (Luke 18:1) 

Like I said, there are mysteries here.

“Despite the fact that God’s nature is in many respects profoundly mysterious to us, we shall not go far wrong if we allow the complementary aspects of God’s character to function in our lives…Then we will learn the better how to pray, and why we should pray, and what we should pray for, and how we should ask.”

“Sometimes it is more important to worship such a God than to understand him.” 

Don Carson

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