June 12, 2022
"I Don't Get It"
Rev. Scott Landis
Many years ago, I served as a college chaplain in a small private liberal arts college in southeastern Pennsylvania. I held that position for just over 12 years. Very different from a church setting, those in the academic community were not all that interested in my ideas about worship or church life in general. In fact, many wondered why the college would waste money by employing a chaplain even though it was a church-related school. I quickly learned in the academic world, professors were much more concerned about the life of the mind, teaching, research, their need to publish in order to be granted tenure AND competing for limited dollars to strengthen their departmental budgets.
I recall a faculty meeting early in my tenure during which a discussion took place which was more philosophical in nature – it felt like this was right up my alley. My chance to shine and begin to prove my worth. I don’t remember the particulars of the discussion, but I was just about to stand to make a point when the Academic Dean in complete confidence very boldly stated, “there is no such thing as truth!” He caught me completely off guard – somewhat shocked and being very new to all of this – I sat in there in silence. I said nothing.
I felt very bad about my inability to speak as I pondered his statement for a long time and changed my tactic slightly. I began having informal conversations with faculty members in the lunchroom sometimes getting around to the question, “do you really believe there is no such thing as Truth?”
You see, I just didn’t get it. I was shocked that so many could hold this notion which was diametrically opposed to my understanding of life – and faith. THE TRUTH helped me to make sense of things. But I also realized this was not church. I could no longer depend upon a set of commonly held beliefs. And I wondered how I might process this alternative world view and effectively engage in meaningful conversation to learn more. [Pause]
Jesus said in our gospel lesson today, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all Truth.” On another occasion, he told the Jews that if they listened to him and followed him, they would know the Truth – and the Truth would set them free. How could there be no “Truth?”
But then I remembered, he also remained silent when Pilate questioned him saying, “What is Truth?” [Pause]
And so I hold all those thoughts in my head as I ponder this fascinating passage today from what is called “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse” to his disciples. He spoke to them knowing that his earthly life was rapidly ending – news that they were as yet unable to bear or even to hear. And I am reminded of the grace of Jesus as he unpacked some of this unfolding “Truth” by also telling his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [Pause]
You hear in those words the incredibly important idea of “continuing revelation.” You see it would be too much for them (or for us) to bear if we heard the whole story all at once. Jesus knew he had to unpack things little by little and, in some cases, allow for the “Spirit of Truth” to illuminate exactly what he meant at a much later time. I so appreciate those grace-filled words of Jesus because they give me permission to “just not get it” sometimes. Perhaps even for a long time. Maybe even a lifetime. [Pause]
Most of us have lived long enough to have gone through some very rough patches in our lives. Or we have witnessed another – perhaps a loved one – experiencing profound loss, confusion, or circumstantial depression. Whether it was OUR experience or the observation of another’s, we often end up in total frustration – perhaps exclaiming the words, “I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why this is happening. It doesn’t make any sense. Why is God allowing this to happen to me? Or to her?
That’s where things begin to get messy. When WE feel the need to make sense OF or explain WHY things are the way they are. Or we try to defend God with pious phrases like, “Well, you know everything happens for a reason.” And “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
I don’t believe either of those statements anymore. No, I think they may be words that merely expose OUR need and really do not attend to the one we think we may be helping — and certainly not our own understanding. [Pause]
I had the coolest thing happen to me the other day. I was out paddling in an OC6 with a really good crew. I was asked to be the stroker – that’s seat #1 where I get to set the pace and help the ho’okele (steersman) guide the canoe – especially while surfing. We had caught a couple of waves and I was yelled at repeatedly for putting my paddle in on the wrong side to help steer in one direction or the other. I have to admit, I do have a little trouble with “right and left,” especially under pressure. Then another person told me I started paddling on the wrong side. Nor did I “power up” properly. In short, I began thinking to myself “I just don’t get it. Even though I love doing this, maybe this is not my sport. I know they all meant well, and this was “constructive criticism” but it was hard to hear.
We took a little break just before bringing the canoe into the beach and I started chatting with the gal behind me (I’ll call her Dee). “You okay, Dee?” I asked. She had been quiet most of the day and she had asked me to pray with her several months ago – so we had some history. I sensed she was not in a good place, and she admitted that she was really down and just couldn’t seem to get out of the funk she was in. She talked some more, and I said, “You know, life is hard. And it's been really hard lately. I told her about a couple of things that I’ve been struggling with that have been hard to hold and I thanked her for being honest and letting me know how she was doing. And I promised to hold her in my prayer.”
Dee replied, “Thank you for saying that. I thought I was all alone. I even felt guilty for feeling that way – especially as a person of faith.” And then she said, “You know, I’m really glad you are in my life. I don’t think we tell people that often enough.”
Well, I sat up straighter. “Powered-up” just as I was supposed to. And helped guide us right into the beach with a perfect landing.
When Truth is spoken – it can be a powerful experience. It doesn’t have to be neat, or clean, or understandable. It just has to be honest, genuine, with an open heart and mind. We may not understand it fully – we just may not get it – we may not even be able to bear it right now. But the Academic Dean was wrong, and I know that now — and fully. There is our reality and There IS truth. We need neither to defend it nor deny it. Truth is much more powerful than that or anything we can muster. And that Truth will, indeed, set us free. It may even help us land – perfectly.
The truth is no matter what our reality. No matter how challenging our life experience may be — God knows and God is there.
We live in hard times. There are many challenges that lie ahead personally and for our church. To deny that is foolish. To wallow in it is counterproductive. But as we walk together – supporting one another through those challenges we may see and know a new way, a new calling, a new pathway in faithfulness. A new understanding of Truth - and yes — the Truth will set you free.