Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Speaking the Truth in Public, or the Descent into Hell

May I speak in Name of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You know the Spirit of truth because it abides in you.” Stop and think about that for a moment: “The Spirit of truth abides in you.” I wonder if you really believe that. Is that what you were taught?

I suspect not. I would wager that most of us have been taught that the truth lies outside of us. Truth is given to us by parents, teachers, experts, politicians, priests, bishops, and other authority figures. Our job is to receive the truth and conform to it. The promise is that, if we do, we will be rewarded.

That is not the kind of truth about which Jesus is speaking. Jesus speaks of a truth that lies within us. It emerges from the inside out, not the outside in. The truth about which Jesus is speaking is the truth about our identity. He is assuring his disciples that they will know who they are if they listen to the Spirit within. We must unlearn what we have been taught and return to the self we were before we internalized the pattern of cultural conformity.

Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces . . .

Like May Sarton, we wear other people’s faces, displaying to the world only what it wants to see or what we can bear to reveal. We spend the first part of our life trading in masks. But at some point, by God’s grace, we decide to become ourselves. We get in touch with the Spirit of truth that abides in us.

Jesus offers us a different pattern than that of cultural conformity. He offers us the deep pattern of his own life, a life transparent to God and marked by freedom, joy, and compassion. Jesus is wholly himself, secure in the truth that he is God’s beloved.

When Jesus tells his disciples “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” he is not calling for slavish imitation. He is inviting them to demonstrate their continuing love for him by discovering the truth within themselves through a similar openness to God. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ “commandments” refer to all that he said and did in utter transparency to God. We discover our true nature by following a similar path of vulnerability to God.

Jesus promises his followers that if they embrace the pattern of compassion and vulnerability that marks his life, God will send an Advocate to remind them of who they are, the Spirit of truth within them that will defend them against the temptation to live a lie, to become someone they are not.

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya.’[ii] It is the same question we must ask if we are to be whole. God does not desire us to be anyone other than ourselves. A secure identity is not something anyone else can provide us. We can’t buy it, or earn it, or get it in any way. It is a gift, our birthright. It can only be remembered.

Do you remember who you were before you put on the mask of conformity, the protective armor beneath which you hid your true identity? Do you remember who you were before the sexual abuse began? Do you remember who you were before mom started drinking? Do you remember who you were before you were told that there were some things that only boys were allowed to do? Do you remember who you were before white people started to look a little bit afraid when you walked passed them on the street? Do you remember who you were before you were dissolved and shaken, before you begin to wear someone else’s face?

Sometimes, it takes many years and places to become ourselves, to throw away the masks. I was 35 years-old when I was ordained a priest. Before then, I spent many years struggling to discern a sense of vocation. As a young man I had internalized the cultural norm that a secure identity had to be earned and that it required success – status, wealth, power.

In college I majored in politics and aspired to public office. Although after graduating I ended up in seminary, after one year of theological school I withdrew and applied to law schools. I received a full scholarship to my alma mater’s law school and decided to return to seminary instead only at the last minute. It was hard for me to let go of the face of conventional success. It would take another decade before pursuing ordination.

But when I think back only a little bit further, I recall my nine year-old self playing “preacher,” delivering sermons to an imaginary congregation from my front porch. I was just being John. I’m still learning to accept that that is God’s will for me. Just to be John. That is the truth. The Spirit of truth in me, and in you.

But, as Jack Nicholson famously said, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” The truth about ourselves can be hard to bear. Sometimes we’d much rather deny it, even die rather than come to terms with the truth. I vividly remember going to the emergency room at San Francisco General some years ago to see a former parishioner, Mary Ann. When I arrived, the doctor informed me that he’d never seen a patient with such a high blood alcohol level who wasn’t already dead.

Miraculously, Mary Ann survived after several days of treatment. Upon her release from the hospital she took a cab to the nearest liquor store and bought the biggest bottle of vodka she could afford. It was only a matter of weeks before her brother found her dead on the floor near her front door, leaving behind an empty refrigerator and countless empty bottles in every room of the house. She couldn’t handle the truth. And so she died.

In his Inferno, Dante described the descent into hell that accepting the truth sometimes requires:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard – so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw . . .

However painful it may be, how ever long it takes, we must accept the truth about ourselves – the whole truth – accepting the shadow and the light, if we want to live. This requires great vulnerability and risk, for the truth can hurt. But the descent into hell, into the darkest corners of our self, can be endured for there is good there also. There is the root of healing, the possibility for integration and wholeness. It is the price we must pay to become ourselves.

The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life in this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.

Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons –
The farmer plows to plant a greening season

The truth about ourselves is often a hard-won truth. With it comes acceptance, even joy. But with it also comes freedom, and with freedom, responsibility. The Spirit of truth is not simply our private possession. Although it begins within, it is meant to make of our life a greening season, a bountiful harvest not only for our healing, but for the healing of the world.

We can survive the descent into hell and come back to tell the good we saw there. Consider Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest who was a chaplain to the African National Congress in Zimbabwe during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Listen to how he describes his story.

“Three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, I received a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines that had been posted from South Africa. In the bomb blast I lost both hands, one eye and had my eardrums shattered.

For the first three months I was as helpless as a newborn baby. People have asked me how I survived, and my only answer is that somehow, in the midst of the bombing, I felt that God was present. I also received so many messages of love and support from around the world that I was able to make my bombing redemptive – to bring life out of death, good out of evil.

Quite early on after the bomb I realised that if I was filled with hatred and desire for revenge I’d be a victim forever. If we have something done to us, we are victims. If we physically survive, we are survivors. Sadly, many people never travel any further than this. I did travel further, going from victim to survivor, to victor. To become a victor is to move from being an object of history to become a subject once more. That is not to say that I will not always grieve what I’ve lost, because I will permanently bear the marks of disfigurement. Yet I believe I’ve gained through this experience. I realise that I can be more of a priest with no hands than with two hands.

In 1992, I returned to South Africa to find a nation of survivors, but a damaged nation. Everyone had a story – a truth – to tell. In my work I’ve developed a programme called the Healing of Memories. Our workshops explore the effects of South Africa’s past at an emotional, psychological and spiritual level. I try to support those who have suffered as they struggle to have their stories recognised.”[v]

The kind of truth of which Jesus speaks is not an idea, anymore than the love of which he speaks is just a feeling. Both truth and love are demonstrated in action. I become fully myself in relationship to you and to the web of life in which we are embedded. We need to hear one another’s stories in order to be whole, to give ourselves back to each other, to remember who we are. In doing so, we discover our vocation. Vocation literally means “to listen,” to listen to how the Spirit of truth within calls us to participate in the healing of the world.

Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons –
The farmer plows to plant a greening season


[i] May Sarton, “Now I Become Myself,” in Collected Poems, 1930-1973 (New York: Norton, 1974), p. 156.
[ii] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), p. 251.
[iii] Robert Pinsky, Canto I from The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation (New York: Noonday Press, 1994), canto 1:1-7.
[iv] Parker J. Palmer, “Harrowing” in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2000), p. 72.

No comments: