Tony Campolo has a theory about that idea that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes. According to Mr. Campolo, the reason a whole life can be captured in a few moments is that most of us haven’t fully lived much. Those moments when we are fully alive –fully in touch with God, ourselves, and our fellow humans--are few. We spend a lot of time simply existing, pursuing worthless aims, or pursuing nothing.
What if rather than our whole lives or the truly alive moments, only the disastrous moments were seen? And what if even for those of us who have tried to live Christian lives, only the bold, well-meaning mis-steps were seen? And what if they were not seen only in our mind’s eye, but were flashed up on a screen for the entire world to see? What if only the foolish things we have said (effectively or not) in the name of Jesus were seen?
For the last 10 years I have taught adult Sunday school at my church. I have a great desire to move folks in my class from wherever they are in their love of God and neighbor to a deeper level. To do so, I walk a line between provoking and reassuring. I actually walk pretty gingerly. But not gingerly enough for some. At least one long-time Christian has called me on the phone to challenge my provoking. After a lengthy conversation with me and another with the pastor, this person stopped coming to my class. He does still attend church with me. We serve our congregation together, we serve each other’s families, we break bread, and pray together. But he felt that I had crossed a line that threatened him. I think that view says as much about his faith as mine.
Though I try to provoke in my class, I know my congregation. They don’t like controversy, even Gospel-born controversy. They like comfort and confirmation of what they have always believed. But you could probably string together videotape of the provocative things I have said or suggested or questioned and you could make a great case for how anti-Christian (or anti-American) I am. And with a video camera, I could have done the same for the pastor of every church I have worshiped in, including the current pastor. String together all of their bad moments (or good moments taken out of context), and you can outrage anybody who wants to hear and see it. This is the problem of the Youtube age. And perhaps what grieves me most is the continued appetite that even my Christian brothers and sisters have for focusing on the perceived ugliness—as if they know nothing of imperfection, inadequacy, humility, compassion, or forgiveness.
So here I serve in a tiny, quiet, largely ineffective Sunday school class of a largely ineffective congregation in Nashville, the city of churches. And while a friend of mine is running for president (I haven’t spoken to him in 30 years; God only knows what I said to him back then that might be used against him today), I am not his spiritual mentor (yet!) I didn’t officiate at his wedding or baptize his children. The man who did is not as restrained in his Christian conversation as I am. Because of that lack of restraint he has probably had more than one person walk out of his assemblies never to return.
But it is amazing to me how little tolerance we have for controversial statements, when so much of our Christian story and the mission of God are built upon them, especially charges against the government: Moses to Pharaoh, Nathan to David, Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, Esther to Persian King Ahasuerus. Think of the prophets, especially Jeremiah, Micah, and Amos. Remember John the Baptist--who was beheaded, Paul of Tarsus—who was beaten, imprisoned and probably martyred, and remember Jesus Christ, who was crucified.
Speaking truth to power. Often ugly truth, often crudely couched truth. Not like the ginger provoking I try in my Sunday school class.
But the sharp truth comes with many risks:
1. Sin taints everything so none of us is gonna get it right every time. Our judgment can be clouded –perhaps not every time, maybe not even most of the time, but sometimes. So what we see to be true may not be true. It might also BE true, though our hearers don’t see it as so. Every vessel (save One) is so tainted.
2. The louder we speak the more potential damage we can do. More people will walk out. We can overstep, or mis-state. We can hurt many people when we intended to hurt no-one.
3. We will be misunderstood. It’s inevitable. Anger can be misunderstood as hate. Criticism can be understood as hate. Subtlety can be lost. The speaker’s style can interfere with the hearer’s ability to hear the truth. And someone will miss the forest for the trees (especially if the trees have been chopped down and handed to you one by one like firewood).
4. In the midst of preaching the truth, error can slip in. It likely will.
But there is an opposite side to risks of sharp truth telling. And if we take the Christian Gospel seriously, this is a risk we must take. Otherwise, we’re wasting our Christian time, and betraying the Gospel. When we proclaim the sharp truth:
1. The Gospel might be revealed.
2. People might begin to follow Jesus
3. People might be moved to love God more deeply and and to engage in one another’s lives.
4. Ministries might arise that transform congregations, local communities, our nation, and the world.
5. We might take the time to actually listen to one another before reacting viscerally and immediately.
6. Lies—personal and societal might get exposed. Ungodly practices might be challenged and godly practices championed.
7. Healing might occur between races, genders, ideologies, and classes.
8. People might be shaped into the image of Jesus and communities might begin to reflect the reign of God.
Still when we take that risk, there will be people standing around ready to round up every mis-step, mistake, foolish move, or weak moment. And when they string them up on Youtube they will ignore the hours and hours of truth we have spoken, of good we have done, of Gospel we have preached and lived.
But the joke is on them: the Word of God will not return void. Though many will be misled, though our words be distorted, or taken out of context, though we might lose earthly opportunities for ourselves or our loved ones (who might be running for President), our lives will speak for themselves.
I can’t help the thought that if my little church began to take more of those risks we might begin to look a little like Trinity United Church of Christ, and in the eyes of God, that would be movement in the right direction.