Becoming people who tell the truth part 2

Understanding what it means to become people who tell each other the truth involves two basic parts. First, we need to think about what “telling the truth” means and then ask how we go about becoming people who do that, whatever that is. It might seem like “telling the truth” is the sort of thing with a definition so obvious that it needs no explanation, but I find the sort of things with assumed understandings are usually the ones that need the most explaining. They are often kind of hard to unpack and explain and (maybe for that reason) carry many misunderstandings.
genie-tell-her-the-truth     The first thing to know is that “telling the truth” is a moral claim. We can know this because everyone would say that telling the truth is something we *should* do. Should lets us know that we’re in the realm of moral actions, that is, actions we would look at and say they were either good or bad, right or wrong. It is right and good to tell the truth. It is bad and wrong not to tell the truth. As obvious as that sounds, we get into very non-obvious territory as soon as we try to nail down all those bad and wrong ways of not telling the truth. We assume that the opposite of telling the truth is telling a lie, but deciding what is or is not a lie can be really complicated (do you remember, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is?”), and more than that, it sets us up with a binary thinking that is not helpful. Telling the truth is not one choice of two, it is one choice of many choices. Some of those other choices aren’t as bad as outright lying (or even as bad as grammatical obfuscation), but that doesn’t make them truth telling either.
     The way I have found it most helpful to think about moral actions, including truth telling, is through the ancient understanding of the virtues. Laid out and preserved for us by Aristotle, this way of thinking tells us four basic things. First, everything we do and say are moral actions. There’s really no such thing as a nonmoral action. You might want to contest the absoluteness of that claim, but really, if you think about it like that, that everything you is some degree of good or bad, you will find it helpful in shaping your life in positive ways. There’s really no downside to being attentive to the moral weight of your actions and speech.
     Second, virtues operate at the level of habit. These aren’t things we typically think about as we’re doing them. If anything, we reflect on them afterward. Which is why such reflection can’t be a bad thing. If you get stuck trying to make decisions, that’s not because you are thinking about morality too much (though you could use that as an excuse) but because you don’t have an established habit of practical reason (what Aristotle called phronesis and we usually translate as “prudence” – but that word has pretty much lost its meaning). Most of the time, we make decisions and then rationalize them after the fact. Which means we’re acting out of habit more often than we probably realize.
     Third, virtues are understood as a median point between two vices. The easiest example is probably courage. Courage is a virtue. It involves feeling the proper amount of fear and acting accordingly. Cowardice is a vice of feeling too much fear and having that debilitate your actions. Recklessness is a vice of not feeling appropriate fear and acting without the important input that fear brings. I will explain in part three how truth telling is a median point with vices on either side.
     Fourth, virtues are deeply interconnected. You don’t really excel in one without doing the others well. As I will explain in part 3, telling the truth often requires a great deal of courage (and prudence too among other virtues). Aristotle explains that the virtues fit together in the holistic forming of a virtuous person. As you can see from the courage example, this is not just about doing the right thing. It is also about feeling the right thing and thinking the right thing. If you have a courage problem, you really have a fear problem.
     And that is the one weakness in Aristotle’s explanation. He doesn’t really tell us how one goes about becoming a virtuous person. He describes what such a person looks like, how it all fits together, but the actual formation part is lacking. If you have a fear problem, how do you go about overcoming that? What I found life-altering is the answer Thomas Aquinas gives to that key question. The answer is the Holy Spirit. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas rehearsed Aristotle’s account of the virtues (in their ascending order) and on top of those he added the “theological virtues,” namely, faith, hope, and love as the highest virtues one can have. These three are called “theological” because they come to us as the Holy Spirit places them in us. They are gifts of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, those baptized in the Spirit as followers of Jesus. For good measure, Aquinas also described the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit as further examples of biblical proof that the Holy Spirit fills us and then works to rehabilitate us, making us into virtuous people.
     When I first read that, coming from the Pentecostal-holiness tradition, my head exploded. This is it. This put all the pieces together for me. The Pentecostal movement began as a holiness movement. People had a deep desire for God to transform how they were living their lives. God answered by pouring out His Spirit on people. The gifts of the Spirit were immediately evident. And it really changed how people lived their lives. They became morally better. The same thing happened with the Charismatic Renewal, with the Jesus People, with the Third Wave. People cried out to God because they were not very virtuous and couldn’t manage to become so on their own. God responded and filled them with power to change their daily lives. Aquinas says love (or charity) is the highest virtue and the shape the rest of them take, because love is the infusion of the Spirit’ own Self into us (“God is love”). Once our hearts are inflamed with the loving, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, everything begins to change. For our purpose here this means truthful speech has to be loving speech in order to be truthful speech. (Which is another way of stating Paul’s admonition: “Speak the truth in love.”)
     All of which is a long way for me to get to my point. The most important, most fundamental aspect of becoming people who tell each other the truth is just this – we have to become people filled with the Holy Spirit. We have to become people whose emotions, thinking, speech, and actions are reordered by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And I have two points of good news on this front.
     First, this means it’s not up to us, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to try to muster up stuff in our own strength. The Spirit will come and enable us. And the first thing we should do is to pray for such a move of the Spirit upon us and in us. Until God shows us, we’re just marking time.
     Second, some of us already have a built-in framework where we can practice this. For those of us in the Vineyard movement, this is precisely what we understand prayer ministry time to be. We wait on the Spirit to give us what to say to each other and then we say that. We don’t say everything we get from the Spirit (many times we specifically get direction how to pray and what not to say) and we don’t just offer opinions. In my experience, Vineyard people are really good at doing this in prayer time. That is a Spirit-infused habit we have cultivated. What I’m suggesting is that we take that practice outside of ministry time and make it our normal mode of speech.
     In part three, I will lay out a continuum of speech, with truth-telling the virtuous center surrounded by a range of non-truth-telling options.

Becoming people who tell the truth part 1

At the annual Society of Vineyard Scholars meeting in Media, PA last week (yes there is such a thing, and it is one of the highlights of my year, and each year the Spirit moves in significant ways, and you should come next year), my mentor Stanley Hauerwas came and spoke to us. His basic message to us was to focus on being the church, which echoes strongly what Wimber always said about us doing the stuff we read about in the New Testament. During the Q&A, someone asked Hauerwas for advice on how we go about being a community that lives like this, that actually walks out a life together as followers of Jesus. His answer: “Don’t lie to each other.” That is such a loaded statement (like so much of what he says). Becoming a people who tell each other the truth is no small feat. It requires love for each other, great courage, hope, trust, unity, freedom, and equality (among other things). Telling the truth takes practice. Over time, faithfulness to those practices creates habits. And sustaining those habits leads to formation as persons and communities capable of being truth-tellers, creating truth-tellers, and being known in our broader communities as truth-tellers.

And it’s something we should really be able to do well because our most basic practices (what makes us Vineyard) are worship and prayer, both of which are practices that only make sense as acts of truth-telling. I talk to Vineyard song writers and worship leaders regularly and we agree that truthful lyrics are important. In practical terms, we try to focus on songs that say more about God than they do about us (some worship songs are too me-centric) and avoid basic heretical claims about God. Often, the easiest (and most powerful) way to do this is just to sing Scripture. And in prayer time, Vineyard people understand that we listen closely to the Spirit and try only to say what the Lord is giving us, ever mindful that we might be getting it wrong, that try as we might to speak the truth, that is a high bar, and something to work at, not assume.

10486233_10152942085577948_5008392789921865805_oI preached about this yesterday at Vineyard North with the text of 1 Pet. 4.7-11:

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

I love that passage. Amy painted the Eugene Peterson translation of v.8 on the wall of our building’s upstairs entrance (see photo above). And that idea – that our words should be the very words of God – that is what it means to tell each other the truth. We tend to think that there is only one opposite of telling the truth but actually there are many. Lying is an opposite. Withholding information to deceive is an opposite. Cynical oversharing can be an opposite. Massaging some truth is an opposite. Opinions can be an opposite. Theology can be an opposite.

That’s right. I’m a theologian and I will admit it. Sometimes we fail to tell the truth because we’re too enamored and enslaved by our own theology.

Becoming a community that has the patience, courage, and mutual love to refuse to lie to each other is a great achievement and always a work in progress. Building out from our worship and prayer practices, I think the Vineyard can become such a community even more than it is now. It takes a lot of work, a lot of vulnerability, and a lot of courage. But it also comes to us as a gift since what it takes most of is an infilling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. I will say more about that in part 2.