(This article, as I worked on it a few weeks ago, was much longer. The shorter version here is much better.
I was asking my Mother, who passed on three and a half years ago, for help to make this shorter. I keep an old King James Bible that was her Mother’s and passed on to me by my dear Grandmother. I use it to look up verses, particularly in the Psalms. Just before I finished this article, while looking through it, a note dropped out. It is from my Mom, in her hand. I never saw it before today. It says:
“Merry Christmas. Even though we are apart at Chrismas time this year, we still can share the day in heart, for thoughts will keep us near! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”
I have been getting little convulsions of tears ever since it fell into my lap. And now, the truth:
By Charlie Johnston
A friend told me of a visit to his Parish by his Bishop. All were very excited because the Bishop had not visited in 15 years. The local radio station came out to tape the homily. My friend said it was a nice enough homily, but bland and boring. Afterwards, the Bishop spoke to parishioners who wanted to stay, but without the radio station present. The Bishop’s comments at this meeting were profound, relevant, candid and deeply inspirational, my friend said. He was disappointed the Bishop had not shared this hopeful, powerful message when the tape was recording.
Jesus said He is the Good Shepherd and His sheep will recognize His voice. (John 10:27-33).
Speaking the truth is not merely a matter of saying things that are true: it involves addressing those things that matter to the listeners, that give them hope and fill them with wisdom. When confronted with a tragedy in the community, you could give a dissertation on mathematics that was entirely true and deeply insightful. But it would not be truth – and it would leave the listeners cold, for its purpose would be to avoid, rather than confront, the reality burdening everyone’s heart. In fact, that is often the purpose of publicly proclaiming things that are accurate, but irrelevant to what people need.
It is a great evil of our age. People – and pastors – are so afraid of giving offense that they speak irrelevant pabulum, all of it true, then wonder why people don’t listen to them or take heart in what they say. It is, in fact, an effort to avoid our fundamental responsibility to our brothers and sisters. The Master’s voice is not in it. And so, those playing it safe, being neither hot nor cold, will be spewed out of the Master’s mouth. Here, then, on this Christmas, are my seven characteristics of how to recognize truth – and how to speak it.
1) It must be true. That is a beginning, not an end. It is the indispensable raw material with which you must work.
2) It must be relevant. It must engage people, deal clearly with what is on their minds and in their hearts. Citing a mathematical table in the aftermath of a tragedy to comfort the mourners may be true, but has nothing to do with the truth they need.
3) It must be candid. Sensitive, yes, but to expel the elephant from the room, you must first acknowledge he is there. If you avoid what is central to troubles around you, you are not dealing with truth. You may, for a time, delay grappling with it for strategic reasons, to nurture more favorable circumstances and strengthen the relationship before tackling troubling issues, but if you find yourself delaying it interminably, you are avoiding truth, not seeking it.
4) It must be charitable. Walk a virtual mile in the shoes of those around you, that you may get a sense of those around you. Do not be one who prides himself on his brutal honesty. Most such are far more interested in the brutality than they are the honesty.
5) It must be respectful. Too many people think to speak truth is merely to harangue others to believe precisely what they do. That is not truth, but only overbearing boorishness, the kind the Pharisees inflicted on all who were not already part of their little clerisy. “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men…and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces…” – Matthew 23:4-7 Respect the consciences of others as you demand they respect yours, Then you can speak truth to one another, as Job and God spoke truth to one another.
6) It must be humble. Unless you are actually God, the only truth you can speak objectively is from Scripture and the Magisterium. Even then, you must be docile to the formal teaching of the Church, lest you misinterpret those truths. That requires humility. And even then, if you are talking to someone of another faith, you must respect their conscience and so, not pound them with such truths as bombastic commandments, lest you drive them away and have their blood to account for before God. Speak as what you are: a man who is called to help other men find the joy of God – and to live as true neighbor to them.
When we hear something true, we often shrug our shoulders and think, “So what.” When we hear truth, our hearts burn within us.
I was deeply saddened, but not at all surprised, to see this survey showing that, routinely, about a fifth of Christian Pastors do not believe in the Virgin Birth or the literal Resurrection. It baffles me why people would give their lives in service to what they believe to be a fraud. Oh, I know, the “Jesus was a good moral teacher…” line. That is for courteous atheists, not Christian Pastors. At bottom, to believe there could not have been a Virgin Birth or a Resurrection is to believe God has no power…and ultimately that there is no God at all. One might carry on, recognizing that the habits of mind and heart engendered by faith are indispensable to a peaceful social order, to interacting well with one another. Some of the deist agnostics among the American founders recognized this. But that is to fend off the darkness with entirely inadequate means, and must ever end in despair. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…” I Corinthians 15:17 Even in St. Paul’s day, some believed these things to be hopeful myths. St. Paul bluntly rebuked them, telling them if they do not believe in the central points, their faith is in vain…and they would be better off as honest disbelievers. In these times, when the forces of secularism are ascendant, when secularists think they have found rigorous “truth,” even as we have cured so many diseases and improved medical care, the death rate is going up. More people are committing suicide, giving in to the despair of living joyless, endless days of quiet desperation where there is no truth, there is no joy, there is no fellowship one with another – only brief sensations punctuating unending sorrow and hopelessness.
This brings me to the seventh characteristic of truth: all truth, all that brings life and hope and peace and fellowship springs from Him who came to us in a manger two millennia ago. Many things that might be true, if not grounded in Him, do not rise to the level of truth. They shall never make our hearts burn within us.
So to Pastors who doubt, I say, pray. Ask the Lord to reveal Himself to you – and pray with the father of the son who was delivered from a demon, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24 If you cannot believe it at all, for your own sake, resign the ministry. God IS…and you will be held to account. “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” – Luke 17:2 If you are teaching, from a position of authority, that the fundamentals of the faith are frauds; if you have deceived yourself that Christ is your creation rather than you, His; get out. You will cause His little ones to sin – and I shudder to contemplate the accounting you will face.
For those of you here, my dear companions, go forth and speak the truth boldly…the truth that begins in a manger. It is a cardinal act of mercy in this year of mercy. Live it every day. Tell the people in darkness that there is hope, there is joy, we are made for God and will live with Him forever – and He calls us to love each other, care for each other, and build each other up. Do this and you will be a light breaking through the darkness of modern despair. If enough of you do it with fortitude, then truly, just a few Christmas’s hence, all the world will say, in wonder, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – Isaiah 9:2
That is truth.