Monday, February 22, 2010

A Discussion about the Discernment Process for Ordained Ministry in the Episcopal Church

On February 23, 2010 The Christian Century magazine published an article entitled "Seminaries Under Pressure." The article explore the problems of dropping enrollments and falling income at most seminaries, suggested that seminaries would need to rethink their approaches if they wanted to be around to train the next generation of church leaders. I couldn't agree more, but I think the problem is broad and deep: not just about educational methods at seminaries, but about the whole process of discernment and training for ordained ministry. So I posted a comment on my Facebook Profile and very productive exchange of ideas ensued. I am posting the exchange here on my Curb-Your-Dogma blog in the hopes of continuing (and broadening) the conversation.

Feel free to join in...

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Ken Howard (2/19/10 - 5:41am)
I believe it is time to rethink not only seminary structure, process, and content, but the entire process of discernment and formation for ordained ministry. I think it would be hard to demonstrate that we doing any better at discerning, selecting, and educating candidates for ministry today than we were when potential candidates only had to "kiss the bishop's ring."
In fact, we may have -- with the best of intentions -- created a process that guarantees auto-immunity against to the kind of innovative, entrepreneurial (risk-taking) leaders that the church needs to survive, screening them out -- or driving them out -- of the process. And what we seem to be screening in people who know how to move through bureaucracies without alerting the "white-blood cells" to their presence: people who keep their heads down, don't reveal too many weaknesses, keep their own council, are competitive with other clergy, and above all don't take too many risks.

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Tracy E. Longacre (2/19/10 - 5:46am)
Hmm, in general I think you are on target, although your definition of who we are getting is, I think, a bit off. The biggest lack? What we don't even try to train/form them for? Which the next several generations are screaming for? -- how to actually have direct experiences of God and create an environment/liturgy, etc. which makes that possible for other people.

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Ken Howard (2/19/10 - 6:17am)
Actually, I didn't say "what we are getting"... but rather "what we are screening in (or for)." Innovator do get through (hey, the got you and me, right?), but often in the face of great challenge and sometimes at great personal cost. Many wonderful candidates get screened out or put on hold or get obstacle after obstacle thrown in their paths by anxious systems who are not sure how to pigeon-hole them (Sarah Dylan Brewer) and many decide the cost to their integrity is too high and create their own alternate pathways (Brian McLaren).

I believe that fewer and fewer in future generations will subject themselves to the process we have set up.

I do agree with you about what they are screaming out for. But I think people who are learning to provide those experiences today are often learning that in spite of their seminary education.

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Tracy E. Longacre (2/19/10 - 6:46am)
>> in spite of their seminary education <<>
And mostly outside their day-to-day roles and responsibilities. Which is why fewer and fewer of the younger generations, though just as spiritual as the rest, refuse to consider themselves "religious" (see the recent Pew survey).

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Tammy Wooliver (2/19/10 - 6:48am)
I'm so with you!!! Let's rewrite it!!!

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Bill Doggett (2/19/10 - 7:28am)
Amen! And let's start with three goals: make the discernment of the church reflect what we believe about the working of the Holy Spirit, let the process always lead to the affirmation of a person's vocation rather than a yes/no decision about one particular vocation, and (in obedience to the national canons) let the discernment of call for every person be the ongoing work of the church.

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Bruce Robinson (2/19/10 - 8:11am)
It seems like this is a task that gets announced in some corner of the church every 10 years or so. And for good reason, certainly. It seems to be fairly easy to find new models for "education." However, the absolutely essential task, "formation," which truly needs to take place over time and in community, seems a harder task to find new models for.

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Tracy E. Longacre (2/19/10 - 8:20am)
@Bruce -- I dunno about that. I was "formed" at the School for Deacons and it truly was formation. Problem with Seminaries is that they are focused on turning out theologians, not working priests. (IMHO)

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Bruce Robinson (2/19/10 - 8:41am)
I agree of course that *every* process will provide formation. The question is, as you say, Tracy, what kind of formation. For 500 years Anglicans have believed in the formation of learned clergy, "theologians," and not sacramental or pastoral ministers only. This founded I suppose in a reaction against the theological illiteracy of reformation-era Roman parish clergy. But it's the academic curriculum that forms us theologically. It's the community we live and pray with that forms us spiritually.

We would certainly in any case say that for 500 years the pastoral model has been central to Anglican life and ministry. As we experiment with new patterns of formation, we would simply be aware that there will be consequences far down the line in all areas of ecclesial life. Used to be doctors and lawyers were "formed" in apprenticeship, but those old patterns have been replaced with a much more structured model. The issues arising will ultimately be the same for the church as they are for medicine or the law in terms of institutional coherence.

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Tracy E. Longacre (2/19/10 - 8:46am)
Hmm, I think "institutional coherence" may be overrated.

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Elizabeth Apgar Triano (2/19/10 - 9:45am)
I suspect that this conversation is too rich for my blood, but I agree with the desire to fix the process, as there are too many creepy and/or incompetent and/or unhelpfully ambitious practicing clergy out there, which gives a bad name to the really really good ones who are also out there!

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Margaret Pollock (2/19/10 - 1:05pm)
I can't comment on recent years, but not too long ago my opinion of the process was that it was hostile to the movement of the Spirit, hostile to the one in whom the Spirit moved. Result was pathological; best-learned skill was passive aggression (except for those of us who lay down on the tracks, willing to get run over if that kind of overt rebellion were the alternative. I have observed many cases in which passive aggression became the learned behavior to get through seminary & win ordination, Of course, PA also became the guts of priestly "leadership" in the parish.

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Bruce Robinson (2/19/10 - 2:44pm)
Believe me, from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, "institutional coherence" is overrated only until it slips out the door. In general, healthy bishops beget healthy dioceses, healthy clergy healthy congregations. Emotional maturity, a steady moral compass, stability, intelligence, sociability, compassion, a lively and sincere and time-tested personal faith grounded in the scriptures and sacraments and greater life of the church. An ability to enjoy people. A sense of being connected. A sense of humor. And especially the ability not to take him or herself too seriously. All that is to say, you can't begin to design a "process of formation" for the wider church unless there is some consensus about what the "finished product" is supposed to look like.

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Mary W. Matthews (2/19/10 - 3:07pm)
When my father died, I phoned my parish priest at 8 a.m. and wailed, "My daddy's dead!" She said, "Do you want me to come over?" and I said "Yes!" And she was wonderful.

I had been attending my seminary for about two weeks when I realized that if someone called ME during my off hours to wail at me, MY first impulse would be to say, "Take two psalms and call me in the morning." I switched from M.Div. to M.T.S. later that day, & have never regretted it.

I can't speak for all seminaries, as some of the commenters here seem to do, but in the late 1990s Wesley Theological Seminary was FAR more interested in creating pastors (ca. 94%) than in creating theologians (ca. 6%), and I have no reason to believe they've changed dramatically.

I think it would be valuable for a prospective priest to attend an accredited seminary for some other denomination than her own, as I did. Priests ought to have some notion of WHY they are teaching and modeling their spiritual and theological values.

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George Werner (2/19/10 - 9:07pm)
We are rightly concerned with "professional standards" but need to also be concerned with vocational, relational and historical perspectives- Is anyone teaching "community" these days? And in a country and moment of history where so much is marinated in venom, could we radiate grace, sacrifice and love as necessary marks of a Christian community? Thanks for doing this.

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Tammy Wooliver (2/22/10 - 7:52am)
As a CPE Supervisor I am noticing a lot of burned out clergy who seem to be unprepared for the realities of parish life. I'd like to see more practical theology and less historical theology taught in the seminaries. But as for the discernment process, I wonder if we really know what we are looking for in a potential priest? Can people/committees... See More discern when someone, for instance, is on a tract of power, serving their ego; as opposed to someone who has a sense of openness and willingness to be formed - who can talk about their vulnerabilities (something we now don't support). The anxiety that is present with potential candidates sets up a dynamic of trying to guess the right answers - losing a sense of basic self to give to the gods the right answers - and this is present usually up until ordination. I'm big on Bowen System's theory and how anxiety gets played out in these processes.

Thanks for the discussion;

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Back on the Blog

A note to my friends out there in the blogosphere:

The two projects that were sucking up my "free" time are now largely complete.

The article I was asked to write for the Anglican Theological Review -- "A New Middle Way: Surviving and Thriving in the Coming Religious Realignment" -- has now been published in the Winter 2010 issue. Those who would like to read the entire issue can purchase it online from the ATR website. Or you can read a just my article on my personal website or church website.

Meanwhile, my recently completed book, entitled Paradoxy (the subtitle keeps changing) has been accepted by Paraclete Press for publication Fall 2010, and will contain a Foreword by Brian McLaren. Watch for it! For more information about Paradoxy, check my personal website.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Conservative vs. Liberal: The Same Tire Old Story

Reading yet another story about schism in Episcopal Church (“More U.S. Episcopalians Look Abroad Amid Rift – Overseas Prelates Lead 200 to 250 Congregations,” June 17, 2007), I found myself growing a little bored with the topic. While we all know that divisions do exist and that some congregations have seceded or are planning to, it gets tiresome after a while seeing the same tired old story repeated for the umpteenth time.

There seems to be a generally accepted storyline that runs something like this: Conservatives vs. Liberals. Traditionalists vs. Revisionists. Conservative congregations are growing like crazy, while the mainline Episcopal Church is hemorrhaging members because it is too liberal. The only problem is the storyline is not a fair portrayal of the reality. Yet it has been repeated so often that the myth has become accepted as fact.

The title of the article itself is an example. The term “rift” makes it seem that a congregational exodus of seismic proportions is underway. Yet 200 to 250 congregations is a minute percentage – less than 3% - of the more than 7,000 congregations that make up the Episcopal Church nationwide. Compare this to the more than 1,200 Southern Baptist congregations that left their denomination to form the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship after the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by its ultraconservative wing. This one breakaway group alone represents almost twice the percentage of congregations which have left the Episcopal Church. Similar migrations of liberal and moderate parishioners have occurred from Episcopal congregations that have grown more conservative. But trends like these that don’t fit the popular presumptions seem to fly under the reporting radar. There certainly do seem to be some significant shifts going on in the Church at present, but the realignment runs both directions.

The content of the article also seems to follow the common “wisdom.” The “overseas prelates” mentioned in the article (and their disaffected American congregations) portray themselves as the protectors of traditional Anglican theology and practice against an aggressively anti-orthodox U.S. Episcopal Church. And this is generally reported as fact. Yet they routinely pick and choose the traditions they want to protect, rejecting traditions that do not suit them in favor of some very non-Anglican practices. The current rush of overseas prelates to outsource the Episcopal oversight of American congregations, for example, violates not only traditional Anglican practice, but ancient Christian practice as well. “One Bishop in the city” has been Christian tradition since the undivided Church of the second century. The reason most often given for violating this ancient tradition is to preserve orthodoxy. But this plethora of prelates raises the question of whose interpretation of orthodoxy will be enforced. Some of these foreign Anglican Churches, for example, accept the ordination of women as orthodox practice, while others do not. And the overarching enforcement body that some of them propose looks very much like a “magisterium” (i.e., top-down interpretation of Scripture by the hierarchy of the Church), a concept the Anglican Church has rejected since its inception.

A related and largely unreported phenomenon is the growing number of churches – our own congregation being one of them – who reject the old conservative vs. liberal storyline. These congregations consider themselves neither liberal nor conservative (though their individual members represent a wide spectrum of theological views). Recognizing that human understanding of the mind of Christ is imperfect at best they choose to make the love of Christ, experienced in their common worship of the Living God, the basis of Christian community, rather than agreement on a broad spectrum of doctrinal principles (unity, rather than uniformity). Not that doctrine is unimportant, only that it is secondary to the love of Christ, and that God is more than capable of sorting us out on these issues over the long haul. This emerging concept of Church is not limited to the Episcopal Church, but is springing up across almost all denominational boundaries. And these churches are growing.

I have friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – from across the theological continuum: conservative and liberal and all points in between. They all have a story to tell about transforming love of Christ. They are all working in their own ways to bring about the reign of God. And as a previous seminary professor of mine once said, “I always agree with my friends.” I just think is always better when we try to speak the truth to each other – the whole truth – and to do it with love.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Episcopal 101: The Anglican View of Orthodoxy

One of the more ironic things as about the current controversy in the Episcopal Church is the way the dissidents – those who have departed or who are threatening to depart from the ECUSA – define their theological terms. They tend to describe themselves as “orthodox” and “traditionalists,” while accusing the Episcopal Church of “heretical” and “revisionist.” But are they using those terms honestly and correctly?

What is Orthodoxy?
These days, when people employ the term orthodoxy, the tend think in terms of a set of correct or acceptable beliefs or doctrines. But the term originally – and literally – meant “right praise.” At its inception, the Church was less of an organized religion than a movement: a way of life centered around the person of the Risen Christ. In fact, the first name the Church applied to itself was “The Way” and the original Greek word for Church literally meant “called out” or “the called ones.” But once it became clear that Christ would not return in their lifetimes, the Church had struggle with the issue of how to pass on the authentic experience and core meaning of the relationship with Christ. As one of my seminary professors once put it, the question was: “What things were so crucial to the story of Jesus Christ, that if they were not there – or if something else were there in their place – it would be a different story?” Over a relatively short time, the focus narrowed to a few key statements, which came to be known as the kerygma (lit. “Key”) – that form the core of the faith:

  • God in Christ fulfills the scripture.
  • God became incarnate in Jesus Christ.
  • Christ was crucified.
  • Christ was buried.
  • Christ rose again.
  • Christ was exalted to God.
  • God gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • There will be a day of judgment.
  • Therefore, repent.

If this begins to sound familiar, it is because these went on to become the basic building blocks of the Apostles Creed sometime in the second century, which was further developed into the form of the Nicene Creed by the fourth century. If you read even these later documents carefully, you will find they more map out the outside boundaries of orthodoxy than they specifically define it. Jesus must be both fully human and fully God, without confusion, change, division, or separation, two natures together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis. But precisely how this paradox is achieved is left an indefinable mystery. Similarly, God is recognized as a complex unity – three distinct persons or personalities within one undivided Godhead – but the paradox itself left again left an undefined mystery. Perhaps it was precisely because they knew were dealing with essentially indefinable mystery, that they explained these things in terms that were essential criteria rather than definition. Which is also perhaps why another one my seminary professors once offered this tongue-in-cheek operational definition of dogma: “This is as good as it’s gonna get, so lets stop arguing about it.”

The Traditional Anglican/Episcopal of Orthodoxy
The Anglican approach to orthodoxy is creedal, rather than confessional. What that means is that Anglicans have traditionally been very reluctant to add any requirements to orthodoxy beyond the criteria of the kerygma as reflected in the ancient creeds. Anglicans have never required its members to individually “confess” or “sign on to” to an extensive statement of personal beliefs as a condition of membership in the Church. In large part, this is because the founders of Anglicanism observed what was the sadly ironic effects of such an approach: the wider the number of doctrines to which the Church requires agreement, the more the Church splinters and the more its sad divisions increase.

The way Richard Hooker, one of the founders of Anglicanism, put it was that what made a person a Christian was that the acknowledged Christ as the savior. Failure to believe a necessary implication of that acknowledgement did not make a person a non-Christian. It might make them wrong, but it doesn’t make them not a Christian. According to Hooke, even heretics ought to be considered Christians: wounded and in need of our prayers, but still Christians. The traditional Anglican approach to orthodoxy is nicely summed up in this statement attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity (love).”

An Ironic Conclusion
So while the dissidents may prefer to call themselves orthodox traditionalists, the tradition of orthodoxy which they are trying to promote – and from which they accuse the Episcopal Church of deviating – is not the traditional Anglican approach to orthodoxy. And for that matter, neither was it the tradition of the early Church. Ironically, in light of the accusations of the dissidents, if the Episcopal Church were to accede to their demands for a broad and confessional definition of orthodoxy, then they really would be guilty of revisionism.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Episcopal 101: The Foundation of Our Faith

The "recent unpleasantness" of the secessions of the churches across the river raises some very important questions.

The leaders of those congregations claim that they are leaving the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) to preserve orthodox Anglican Christianity. They claim that they have no choice but to leave because the U.S. Episcopal Church has rejected Christian orthodoxy and Anglican tradition. Implicit in their rationale for schism is the accusation that the national Episcopal Church is no longer Anglican or even Christian.

So we have to ask ourselves several questions? What is the ultimate foundation of Christian faith? What makes a Christian Christian? For that matter, what makes a church Christian?

What lies at the core of Christianity? Is it ultimately defined by a set of beliefs? Or by a relationship with Christ? Our departing brothers and sisters across the river are staking their actions on the former definition: that Christianity is primarily defined by its doctrines and that membership the Church Universal is based on agreement with (or assent to) those doctrines.

Despite our friends’ claims to the contrary, traditional Anglican theology has always held to the latter definition: that what makes a Christian Christian is a relationship with Christ. According to Richard Hooker, one of the founding theologians of Anglicanism, "the foundation of our faith" is the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Savior. In other words, for a person (or a Church) to be considered Christian only belief in Christ as savior is essential; all else is secondary.

That does not mean that the doctrines of the Christian faith are unimportant. On the contrary, they can be very important in guiding us in what it means to be Christian. But they are the Church’s expression of what it means to be a Christian, and as such they can be subject to error. For example, even the Nicene Creed, the quintessential statement of Christian belief and unity was itself the source of disunity for more than a millennium. All over the definition of a mystery: whether the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son," as the Western Church held, or "from the Father," as the Eastern Churches have held. Both have recently agreed that it was a distinction not worth splitting the Church over. Even if disagreement over a portion of the Nicene Creed was a valid reason for schism, surely the current controversies over less essential questions are even less so.

Even if the current disagreements were over the most important doctrines, would disagreement with those doctrines render someone no longer a member of the body of Christ? Not according to traditional Anglican theology. According to Hooker, "Only ‘direct denial’ of Christ constitutes apostasy from the Universal Church. Only denial ‘by consequent,’ by failure to hold a necessary implication, does not make a non-Christian. ‘Whole Christian churches’ have so erred and are yet Christian." In other words, even heretics remain Christians. "We must acknowledge even heretics themselves to be, though a maimed part, yet a part of the visible Church."

So there we are. When we acknowledge Christ we become part of one body, one family. No matter how much we disagree, we are stuck with one another.

[I am indebted to the Rev. Alison Quin for the original research on this issue, which is available on the church’s website,, under "Resources for Study."]

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reclaiming Our Anglican Traditions
It's Time for Episcopal Theology 101

[Reprinted from The Abbey - Jan-Feb 2007 Issue]

What with all the uproar "across the river" about several Diocese of Virginia congregations seceding, I was very interested to read the Op-Ed piece from The Rev. John Yates, the former rector of the Falls Church (Episcopal), and Os Guinness, a parishioner, entitled "Why We Left the Episcopal Church." My interest lies in part in the fact that I have read and enjoyed many of professor Guinness's books on philosophy, culture, and religion (his book The Dust of Death still sits on my bookshelf). So I was surprised to find his name attached to an editorial which was so misinformed about Anglican and Episcopal theology and polity.

But I have to thank them for hitting one nail squarely on the head. They got it absolutely right when they said that the current dispute is not ultimately about women priests or the ordination of a gay bishop. Rather, it is about THEOLOGY and whether the Episcopal Church is being true to its theological traditions and understandings. (They cite the "abandonment" of these traditions and understandings as the reason for their departure.)

Unfortunately, most of what they said after that point portrays a profound misunderstanding of our theological traditions and understandings. Time and space do not permit a full, point-by-point discussion of their letter, but let me give one glaring example.

As one of their reasons for leaving, they say that the Episcopal Church has abandoned the doctrine of "sola scriptura" ("by the scriptures alone"). In fact, this has never been an Anglican/Episcopal doctrine. Anglican hold what my fairly conservative former mentor us to call a "high doctrine of Scripture." Anglican doctrine is that Scripture "containeth all things necessary to salvation," and thus commands a privileged position in our theology. Yet we also look to tradition and reason as our guides. In other words, Anglicans believe that, since none of us has a lock on the absolutely correct interpretation of Scripture, the most effective way to determine what God is trying to teach us about God's will is by testing our understanding of scripture by our tradition and reason. Likewise, we test the Church's tradition against scripture and reason, and we test our reasoning (even about our beliefs and doctrines) against scripture and tradition. Many have affectionately called this approach the "Three-Legged Stool" of Anglicanism."

In describing this testing process, I use the term "we" very intentionally. Because the key to this process is that it takes place in the context of the faith community, with the members of the community bringing their differing understandings – even major differences (especially those) – into discussion amongst the community of faith to be tested in the give and take between scripture, tradition, and reason. (It’s actually very much like the ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash – well-known and well-used by the likes of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.)

Our forebears in the Anglican faith tradition understood that as fallen human beings (and fallen ecclesiastical institutions) we are apt to get it wrong in any of these three areas. So we are better off with a system of "theological checks and balances."

This approach also means that our theological understandings are not fixed in stone and unchanging. If we can get it wrong in any of these three areas (and our understanding of God's will is never complete), sometimes we have to grow and change in our understanding in order to move closer to the truth. And Anglican tradition is very careful about the number of issues it elevates to doctrinal significance. As Richard Hooker, one of the "founding fathers" of Anglican theology made clear, Anglicans view the Holy Scriptures as speaking authoritatively when it comes matters of salvation, but as providing wider latitude in most other matters.

Ultimately, for Anglicans the primary thing that holds us together is not complete agreement any number of truths, but rather our common worship of The Truth: the Living God, in the form of Jesus Christ.

I think this a great part of what lies at the heart of the current conflict: that a great many of us Episcopalians haven't done a great job educating ourselves and others about these issues (this applies to both liberals and conservatives and everyone in between). And so it becomes hard to give a good answer when someone says they want to secede from the church because it has gone astray from its historical teachings on theology or morality.

I'd like to see us change all that: to shed some light on the subject in place of all the current heat. And so in each of the next several issues of The Abbey I would like to take one or two important Anglican theological and ecclesiastical traditions and explain them in plain English (btw, preaching, teaching and worshiping in plain English is also an Anglican tradition). So watch this space . . .

Meanwhile, if you are impatient and want to "read ahead," just go to the website, click on "About the Episcopal Church" or "About Christianity" and start reading.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Death & Resurrection of Christianity:
Rediscovering the Love at the Heart of the Truth

Dear Curb-Your-Dogma Friends,

As you may have read in earlier postings, part of my reason for starting this blog is that I have been doing research for a possible book. Being a Myers-Briggs "E", I have to "think out loud" before I write and and test out ideas as I go along. Some of the entries I have already posted are in the vein.

The current working title of the book is: The Death & Resurrection of Christianity: Rediscovering the Love at the Heart of the Truth (I say "current" because my working titles seem to have a constantly evolving life of their own).

There are three things I hope to do in this book.

First, I want to look at the paradigms that the Church has adopted over the centuries, how many of these have lead directly to the current divisions within the Church today, and of which many are the process of dying because the no longer provide the church with an effective basis to understand itself in the context of reality as we know it.

Second, I want to examine movements within the earlier church which in their day transcended the paradigms by which the Church understood and regulated its existance at the time, and thus may provide us with clues as to how we might transform our understanding of what the Church is being called to by God to be and do in our day.

Third, reflecting on the above, I want to begin to suggest the broad outlines of what I am calling "a converging theology for an emerging church" -- a different way of looking at "orthodoxy" which would be at the same time more humble and more bold than the way in which we corrently conceive it -- living out of the few powerful, mysterious, and paradoxical Truths that core of Christianity "like we really believe them," rather than trying to trying to enforce a uniformity of belief.

No small task, I know. But I would welcome your review and comments as I post my "chapters."

Meanwhile, for your reading pleasure a sermon which takes on what one of the ideas that will likely be in the book: a discussion of Truth with a Capital T. It is called, "The Truth Will Make You Free . . . But First, It Will Really "Tick You Off."

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August 27, 2006 - Pentecost 12 (John 6:56-69)
By The Rev. Ken Howard

The Truth will make you free . . . but first it will really tick you off.

Because of [his words] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

This may well be one of the best known of the sayings of Jesus. Certainly one of the most profound. But a friend and colleague of mine once suggested that this was only the first half of what Jesus said on that day. That some careless scribe left the second half off. And that the full text should read:

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free . . . but first it will really tick you off.”

Careless scribe? Could be, I suppose. Or maybe the scribe just missed the second half because the crowd was reacting so loudly to the first half’s implication that they didn’t already know the truth. Or I guess Jesus might have meant to say it, but got distracted by the crowd’s reaction. Or maybe my friend just made it up. In fact, I’m almost positive someone did. But whether Jesus actually said it or not, I think it’s a true statement all the same. Come to think of it, if I were putting words in Jesus’ mouth I would go even farther. I would have him add:

“And you shall know it is the truth, because it ticks you off.”

Because in my experience that is the way it is with Truth – and here I mean Truth with a capital T. In my experience, the Truth is not something that makes us feel comfortable, but rather something that makes us squirm, at least just a little.

This is not the common wisdom, which would have us believe that the Truth will make us feel confident, self-assured, and right with God. But in my experience, things that make us feel that way are not capital-T Truths, but rather are things that are merely “truthy” sounding. They do not so much make us confident as provide cover for our insecurities; do not so much make us feel self-assured, as disguise our self-centeredness; do not so much make us feel right, as self-righteous.
Let me tell you a story. Most of you know I came from a fairly large family: three brothers and three sisters. So maybe it doesn’t surprise you that there were a lot of arguments going on. In fact, I can hardly think of any time when I was growing up that there wasn’t some argument going on between two or more of us siblings. But with one of my siblings – a younger brother – and I, the habit has continued on into adulthood. Politically, he is about as far away from me as you can get: somewhere to the right of Ghengis Khan. Religiously? He’s an atheist.

Not too long ago, he called and asked what I thought of a political email he sent me. And off we went. After an hour or two, I finally, said, “Look, I don’t want to argue about this any more.”

“Ah hah!” he said, “So you admit I’m right.”

“No.” I said, “I’m just tired of arguing.”

“But I won,” he said, a little desperately.

“Not really.” I said, “You’ve only convinced me that this argument is a waste of time. If you want to call that a ‘win’ then be my guest. But don’t make the mistake of thinking my silence means that I think what you are saying is true.”

Too often these days people wield Truth – or what they believe to be Truth – as a weapon to wound their enemies: those with whom they disagree, or who make them feel uncomfortable or threatened. All too often they make the mistake of thinking that winning whatever argument they are waging is the same as establishing the Truth of the matter. All too often they make mistake of thinking that the silence of their opponents means that the “Truth has won out,” when it may only mean that their opponents are too intimidated – or maybe just too exhausted – to continue.
And all too often this happens in the church. Sadly, perhaps more in the church then in other venues of life. Perhaps more so even then in politics, perhaps because we know we are supposed to be about Truth, while most politicians can get by on “truthiness.”

And let me be clear here that no part of the Church is exempt from this temptation to condescend. Those on the left can fall into it just as easily as those on right. And those of us in the center can just as easily look down upon the extremes. It is just a part of our human nature to believe that we own the Truth, that we and those who agree with us are right, and that those who don’t are dead wrong. We all do it. It’s just that our preferred weapons of “truthiness” just look a little different on the outside.

The irony of the whole thing is that Capital-T Truth really IS a weapon. But it is a very different kind of weapon than the kind we are used to. It is a weapon that we cannot bring to bear against another without wounding ourselves. Like a sword that is all blade and no handle, we dare not raise it against another unless we are willing for it to cut into our heart and mind as well.
It reminds me of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. All night long they wrestled, until finally the angel touched his hip joint and wounded him, a wound that would cause him to limp for the rest of his life. And after wounding Jacob, he gave him a new name: Y’sra El – literally “Wrestles-with-God” – because, as the angel put it, he “wrestles with God and humans.” Jacob learned the Truth about himself that night, and was wounded in the process. And he counted this exchange as a great deal. Because he learned an important Truth about God: that one could “wrestle face to face with God and live.”

This story has informed Jewish thinking about Truth since ancient times. There is an old saying: “Wherever there are two Jews, there are three opinions.” On one level, this saying merely observes the fact that arguing is the Jewish national pastime. But on a much deeper level, it means that no one person can have complete knowledge of God’s Capital-T Truth, but that when two or more people come together and engage in open-minded, open-hearted agreement a more complete picture of the Truth emerges. And when this approach is used as a theological method to argue about what God expects of humankind it is called “Midrash,” a method of teaching with which one Rabbi Y’shua ben Yoseph – whom we know as Jesus – was quite familiar.

It is also the Anglican approach to theology, as well, though we do not call it Midrash. But it is a recognition that as fallen human beings, none of us can fully know the mind of God. That we don’t always have to look at our differences as either/or, because sometimes they are both/and. Myself, I’ve always thought of it as the “Walton’s Mountain” approach: The Church is like a big family. We can argue and fight all day long, but at the end of the day its “good night Mom, goodnight Dad, goodnight John-Boy, and we go to sleep in the same house, and wake up the next morning just as much family as the night before. We are stuck with each other. And for a reason. So we can learn from each other. About ourselves. About each other. About God. And if we realized that Truth, maybe we could come to our arguments not to “win” but expecting hearts and minds to be transformed. Most especially our own.

Because we already know the Truth. And the Truth has and is and will continue to set us free. We do not own the Truth. The Truth owns us. And whenever two or three of us are gathered, there He will be . . . in the midst of us.

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